Practicing Smarter, Not Harder

What follows is a collection of fourteen helpful guidelines for practicing. Learn it and live it!

You become what you practice. There are two sides to this: If you practice bad habits or practice good habits, you can be sure that they will become part of your technique. Mamma Howell’s take on this was, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Your two possible outcomes when executing an exercise are radical success or catastrophic failure. If you constantly practice compromising, you will have a compromised technique. Old habits only die when they fail and our brains are forced to find new solutions. Each exercise should serve a specific purpose, and you should be able to state what you are trying to accomplish.

Work towards time goals, not specific accomplishments. If you give yourself the time to practice every day, without attaching the need to succeed, you will have no problem honing your technique, learning your music, and – most importantly – singing your music with your new technique. Make sure that you stop each day prior to the point of exhaustion. It does you no good to practice wearing your voice out. Performances are milestones along the way; the real work of a musician is done in the practice room.

Practice slow and fast. Try this: Hold your hand up, palm to the sky. Slowly close your fingers into a fist. Notice that there is a stuttering, ratchet-like, un-smooth quality to the motion. Now do it quickly, and notice that the same motion is smooth. The muscles of the hand, like the muscles that make up the larynx, consist of many short bundles of muscle fibers. When they move slowly you notice the ‘hand off’ from one to the next. When you move quickly, they act in a more smooth and coordinated fashion. Do the same with your vocal exercises. Slow then fast. Up a half-step. Slow then fast, etc…

Don’t just sing major scales and arpeggios. Work minor, diminished, and augmented patterns into your exercises. Those harmonies are in the music you sing, right?

Send clear, positive thoughts to your instrument. Do not focus on what you want to remove from your technique when you practice. Example: Do not think, “Back of my tongue, don’t tense up.” Instead think, “My tongue is going to be relaxed, loose, and rest gently towards the front of my mouth.” The body is really good at doing exactly what we tell it to do. When we think in the language 0f avoiding negative habits, we actually give energy to those habits.

Take radical responsibility for your own issues. Do not say the word “it” when describing your technical shortcomings, “It doesn’t work, It’s tightening up, etc…” Say “I.” “I am telling my [insert body part] to tense up.” When you take responsibility for that fact that no one else is sending the command to be tense, you stand a chance of figuring out what faulty command you are actually sending. You can even practice compassion for the poor technique. “Dear [insert body part], I know that you are doing exactly what I am telling you to do and working inefficiently for a reason. This is most likely because you are trying to protect me from something that I am just beginning to become aware of my fear of. Thank you for trying to help me protect myself. You can rest now, and I’m going to try something different for a bit.” Seriously, this works.

You have issues with the back of your tongue. 95% of you out there are pushing down on your larynx with the back of your tongue. Get an anatomy book and look at how long the tongue is (spoiler alert: it is really long). Practice simple exercises with your tongue in a strange place (gently placed to the left or right, or curled up in the front). Notice when your tongue wants to pull back. With your tongue in a more neutral position, sing without pulling back. This one improvement will fix a majority of your technical issues.

Practice non-attachment/your voice is not an expression of your soul. With practice you may develop an instrument capable of expressing something your soul feels, but you are going to have to make some amazingly ugly and non-musical sounds to develop that solid technique. You conduct your sound through bone and tissue, while your listeners conduct the same sound waves through air. When the sound in the air is beautiful, it is often harsh and ugly in your head. When it sounds beautiful in your head, chances are that it sounds anywhere from dull to manipulated in the air. As frustrating as it may be, you cannot listen to yourself when you sing, and you cannot attach meaning to the sound of your own voice as you hear it.

Record everything. Buy a little digital recorder or use your laptops and phones. Get to know the device limitations (is the microphone tinny, harsh, muted, etc…), and listen back to your rehearsals/lessons. You will hear dozens of little fixable things. If you can hear it, you can fix it!

Get excited about practicing! Make little signs like, “February is sing a clear [a] vowel month.” Hang them up around your house and in your practice space. Imagine that you are taking an independent study in singing with a released tongue. Naming your challenges keeps your attention focused on them.

Recognize that there are different ‘modes’ of practice and that each mode requires a specific approach:

  • Warm ups before practicing
  • Warm ups before a performance
  • Purely technical work
  • Incorporating your new technique into literature

Practice with a metronome. Singers can be rhythmically… what is the word… oh right, LAME. Don’t be a stereotype. Singing in time is a completely learnable skill if you practice regularly with a metronome.

Sleep is very important. I cannot emphasize this enough. Sleep is not only when your body repairs damage (say from vibrating your vocal folds against each another several hundred times a second for an hour or more), but also when the brain assimilates new information and patterns learned during the day. The more sleep you get the better you will be at singing, the faster your technique will improve, and the easier it will be to memorize music.